Wednesday, 3 July 2013

Watch Out For That First Step

Steve Jackson's last Fighting Fantasy gamebook to date, Creature of Havoc, got a lot of advance publicity in Warlock magazine. That, combined with the fact that the book was to contain the next bookmark in the promotion I mentioned last week, and some vague hints about the book's villain in Titan - the Fighting Fantasy World, made me very keen to get my hands on the book when it came out. I was looking forward to the book enough that the discovery that every copy in Tunbridge Wells contained bookmark 5, not 4, only mildly annoyed me (the real irritation came when non-FF book Helmquest, the last title to feature in the promotion, came out and also had bookmark 5 in it, denying me the opportunity to read the penultimate instalment of the story, solve the fourth puzzle and thus get an opportunity to work out the ultimate answer and enter the competition).

I started reading the book on the way home, and the 19-page background section ensured that, while my character might be starting the adventure with no knowledge of anything, not even its own identity, I was already fairly clued-up on the state of things, and had my suspicions about what I actually was. Yes, what. The viewpoint character of Creature of Havoc is of some never-explicitly-identified species, with scales, claws, an inability to speak, and an appearance that causes many who encounter it to use the term 'foul creature'. Sort of, though I'll get onto the book's treatment of language later, if I survive that long.

A couple of variations in the rules mean that poor stats aren't as likely to doom me here as in most of the FF books that came out at this stage in the series' development. Well, a low Luck can be fatal, but Skill isn't as big a deal as usual, so I shall take the dice as they fall.
Skill 11
Stamina 23
Luck 11
Why couldn't I get something like that a time when it mattered, eh?

I must now hope for some significantly lower rolls, because at the start of the adventure my character doesn't even have free will: my initial actions will be determined by instinct and the whim of the dice. There are decent plot-based reasons for this, but that doesn't make it much less frustrating when a string of high rolls at the start guarantees failure. Anyway, when I encounter a wounded Dwarf in the subterranean passage where my adventure begins, while the book offers me three different options, I know from past attempts that bestial urges will override any attempt at a non-violent resolution. Going straight for the kill means that the doomed-whatever-I-choose Dwarf won't get a chance to stab me with his sword before dying, so that's what I'll do.

Another faux-choice follows: I'm going to wind up searching the body whatever option I actually pick, so I don't waste time trying to do something different. Ignoring the shiny metal discs that spill from the Dwarf's belt pouch, I take great interest in a piece of hide with markings on it. At this point my character has no way of making sense of those markings, but I shan't yet turn to the section that reproduces its content as I am no longer able to not understand the code in which language is presented, so rather than seeing the sort of incomprehensible gibberish that my character does, I'd be able to read the thing.

I'm at a junction, and randomly decide to go... west. Phew! If I'd rolled too high, I would have had at least two further rolls that could have put me back on the right track, but the sooner I get past this bit, the better, so I'm glad to have succeeded straight off. My wanderings take me to a chamber in which three humanoids are seated around a fire. Overcome by animosity towards the smallest (a detail that becomes a lot nastier once you know the full story), I charge across the floor and attack the Hobbit, killing him with one blow. No, his Stamina's not that low, nor did I use Luck to increase the damage: one of those rule changes I mentioned was that I instantaneously kill any opponent any time I roll a double while calculating my Attack Strength. There are a couple of points in the book where Mr. Jackson appears to have forgotten that detail, allowing opponents to take some specific action after so many rounds of combat, even though they might not live that long, but those incidents are all off the optimal path, so that's a relatively minor problem.

The two humans are now reacting to my presence, the one in armour shouting instructions to the one in a robe. The rapidity with which I slew the Hobbit means that my next decision is determined by Testing my Luck rather than a simple roll of one die, which gives me significantly better odds (and would still offer a better chance even if I'd started out with the minimum possible Initial Luck). I go for the human in the robe, who's too busy concentrating and chanting and pointing his little fingers to protect himself, so he dies before he can cast the spell. This gives the one in armour a free attack on me, but that's the only wound he manages to inflict before I kill him. The armour prevents me from eating the body, so I make do with just the two others.  There's a fair bit of anthropophagy in this book, but such is the nature of the beast.

Continuing on my way, I disturb a flock of bats and reach a door. The die determines that I turn back, but then one of the bats flies into my left eye, so I opt not to go through the flock again after all, and smash the door down. The room beyond contains the aftermath of a battle, with two dead Orcs and two dead humans, and I see chunks of flesh mysteriously vanishing from the corpses. My next roll has me investigate, disturbing the invisible creatures that were feeding on the dead, which become visible and attack me. One of them wounds me once (and I roll an Instant Death against it the next round, as if provoked to greater savagery by the pain). Once they're dead, I search the other bodies, finding more of those uninteresting metal discs and a wooden casket containing a translucent flask of purple gas.

Inadvertently opening the flask, I release its contents, which take on the shape of a face, which speaks apparent gibberish to me. The gas then returns to the flask, which vanishes, and I must decide which exit to take from the room. The text doesn't make a big deal about my suddenly being able to make choices, and on my first attempt the change from rolling to see what I did next and being able to pick options didn't even register. Later, after I'd learned how to understand language and could find out what the face said, I understood what's going on here (Elven magic referred to in the introduction has conferred upon me the gift of Reason), but I do like the low-key way in which free will is introduced into the set-up.

Heading west, I soon encounter yet another group of adventurers (there are a few possible explanations for why this particular dungeon is so busy) and, after killing them, take a souvenir. I get to choose one of three items: a pendant, a pair of metal bracelets, or a pouch of those metal discs that adventurers seem to like so much. The bracelets would enable me to escape the trap that ended my first attempt at the book, but the pendant is the only actually essential item, so I take that. It has a power, but one which will only become apparent when circumstances are appropriate, as indicated by a specific phrase in the text. This book contains a lot of 'hidden' sections, only accessible by following rules laid down at an earlier stage in the adventure, which makes it harder to cheat. And, thanks to one of the most infamous errors in gamebook history, technically impossible to win (depending on which edition of the book you're reading), but I'm getting ahead of myself.

After eating a quick snack to restore my Stamina, I continue on my way, reaching a flight of stairs that spans a foul-smelling river. Not having human-sized feet, I must Test my Luck to make a successful descent, and the dice let me down. I trip, fall, and meet an unpleasant end in the Bilgewater River. Bother!

I got further in my previous online playthrough, but made some poor choices that led to my missing a few crucial encounters. And that write-up does rather take for granted that its readers know the book reasonably well - given that it's on a forum specifically for fans of the range, it's not unreasonable to assume that members have some familiarity with one of the more renowned (and reprinted) titles, whereas this blog draws its audience from a wider range of people. Still, for a slightly fuller experience of the book, that's all I can offer until the inevitable-but-not-for-some-time replay.

No comments:

Post a Comment